Undefeated Notre Dame (11-0) heads to Los Angeles to take on traditional rival Southern California on Saturday evening in its final audition for the college football playoff committee. The Fighting Irish are currently ranked third and are playing at a high level, having demolished 12th-ranked Syracuse last week in New York. The Trojans (5-6) are limping to the finish of a disappointing season. A cascade of injuries and youthful mistakes have led to four losses in the last five games. Still, we’ve seen this script before in this rivalry, and USC has plenty of talent on hand to engineer an upset. The game will be nationally televised by ABC starting at 8:00 PM EST.
Clay Helton is the newly embattled head coach at Troy, where he appeared safe after two successful seasons in 2016-17 and a contract extension through 2023. The USC faithful are a fickle bunch, however, and Helton is catching considerable heat for the recent downturn and his non-confrontational leadership style. Following the loss to UCLA, the Trojan Internet cognoscente are now clamoring for a strong disciplinarian to replace him. This season, Helton turned the reins of the offense over to J.T. Daniels, a true freshman quarterback, and the growing pains are evident. Daniels is hardly to blame for the injuries and inconsistent play by the rest of the roster, but his own mistakes are magnified in the L.A. fishbowl.
Despite an undercurrent of negativity, several Trojan players have expressed a determination to ruin Notre Dame’s perfect season as their predecessors have done on multiple, painful occasions in this rivalry. Helton understands the challenge that the Irish will pose for his team, though. “It’s an 11-0 football team that I think is playing at a high level in all phases,” he said. “Really, really good college football team. They deserve where they’re ranked. They’ll get our best effort and I know we’ll get their best effort.”
Notre Dame is enjoying a relatively healthy second half after losing guard Alex Bars in late September. Linebacker Drue Tranquill continues to play despite chronic issues with a high ankle sprain, but the rest of the squad is in relatively good shape.
USC has not been as fortunate, especially on defense. Star outside linebacker Porter Justin is lost for the year, while inside man John Houston is nursing a hamstring injury and is questionable for this game. His backup, Levi Jones, was dismissed from the program earlier this month. At safety, Talanoa Hufanga is out while Marvell Tell will play despite an ankle issue. On the other side of the ball, starters Josh Falo (tight end), Chuma Edoga (tackle) and Aca’Cedric Ware (tailback) are among the walking wounded.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. USC’S DEFENSE
Ian Book bounced back from a rib injury and showed no ill effects in passing for 292 yards last week. Wideouts Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, along with tight end Alize Mack, have shared the wealth of Book’s pinpoint throws on a relatively equal basis. This balance, along with a capable running game led by Dexter Williams, discourages an opponent from overplaying any particular area.
USC runs a 3-4 defense that includes a pair of freshman linemen up front. Nose tackle Marlon Tuipulotu and end Jay Tufele are promising talents, but the Trojans have allowed 168 yards rushing per game to date against 137 for Notre Dame. Just last week, UCLA ran for 318 yards against them in a 34-27 victory.
Outside linebacker Christian Rector comes in as a fourth rusher in passing situations. He leads the active players with 4.5 sacks, while Justin had seven before going down in mid-October. Cameron Smith, a four-year starter at middle linebacker, is the captain and leading tackler. He and Houston do a credible job of stemming the tide, but the Bruins ran wild when Houston departed with his hamstring injury. If he is unable to stay on the field against the Irish, freshman Palaie Gaoteote will be pressed into service.
The injury problems at safety may partially explain the fact that USC has only three interceptions this season. Senior cornerbacks Isaiah Langley and Iman Marshall do a credible job, but Langley in particular will be at a physical disadvantage in a matchup with Boykin or Claypool. The Irish can establish the running game early, particularly if Houston is out of the lineup. The visitors should be able to handle the Trojans in the trenches, and that will get the offense running downhill.
USC’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
Daniels has had an up and down freshman season with a 57% completion rate and 13 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. When given time to throw, he has a wealth of quality targets including Tyler Vaughns, Velus Jones, Michael Pittman and Amon-Ra St. Brown. The latter pair are the primary deep threats, but all have sufficient speed to challenge any secondary. Falo is a solid target at tight end, and would be missed if he is not on the field.
Adequate protection for Daniels has been a problem this season. He loses accuracy when throwing on the run and has made questionable decisions leading to turnovers when operating under pressure. The offensive line will have to raise its game to keep Notre Dame’s pass rush at bay. Center Toa Lobendahn and guard Chris Brown are competent, as is Edoga at right tackle when healthy. Lobendahn moved inside this season from a tackle spot and has had chronic issues snapping the ball cleanly to Daniels.
This season, the Trojans have been unable to generate their traditionally powerful running game to take pressure off Daniels and fuel the offense. Ware and alternate Vavae Malepeai are solid backs, but they have not had very much running room against the better teams on USC’s schedule. Daniels is not a threat to venture out of the pocket, so defenses have one less potential weapon to worry about.
The Irish secondary will be thoroughly tested in this game, especially when the Trojans line up with three and four receivers. While Julian Love and Troy Pride have been reliable corners, reserves such as Nick Coleman, Donte Vaughn, along with freshmen Tariq Bracy and Houston Griffith may find themselves in difficult matchups. This underscores the need for Notre Dame to generate consistent pressure on Daniels and force him to move his feet while attempting to pass.
Notre Dame has played few if any games this year without some sort of special teams gaffe. Blocked kicks or punts, long kickoff returns allowed for scores, and kickoffs out of bounds have been all too common. A clean performance in this phase of the game would be most welcome, since USC has the athletes to break off a long punt or kickoff return.
Many followers of the playoff committee believe that Michigan could pass the Irish in the final rankings by winning the Big-10. This scenario would be much less likely if Notre Dame had not allowed the Wolverines to score a cheap touchdown on a kickoff return to make the final score much closer than it should have been.
Kicker Chase McGrath of the Trojans suffered an ACL injury and missed the second half of the season, But Michael Brown has come on to do a credible job in his absence. Brown has hit six of eight attempts from short to mid-range, but McGrath was more reliable in that spectrum. Punter Reid Budrovich has a 39-yard average and has suffered one block. USC has blocked two punts by opponents this year.
Vaughns is an effective punt return man with one long touchdown to his credit this season. Velus Jones handles the kickoffs with statistically average results. The coverage teams have been competent for the most part, but did allow one score on a 92-yard punt return.
The Irish linemen have an advantage on both sides of the ball, and have more quality depth available to them due to the injury issues in Troy. Book is the more reliable quarterback, while USC’s receivers are explosive and lethal. Notre Dame can control the game on the ground, but must clean up the false start and holding penalties that have ruined several trips to the red zone. The Trojans have drawn a flurry of yellow flags themselves, and senseless personal fouls at critical moments led directly to upset losses in their past two games.
Notre Dame has played with the lead most of the season, and can settle the issue on Saturday relatively early with another strong start. Irish mistakes and big plays by the Trojans would boost the confidence of the youthful hosts and could turn the game into a one score affair.
Here are a few questions that will have a bearing on the outcome:
Will the Irish be able to run downhill against the depleted USC front seven?
Which team will commit the fewest mistakes and drive-killing penalties?
Can Notre Dame pressure Daniels into negative plays and turnovers?
Which offense will be able to generate a balanced attack?
Can the swift Trojan receivers torch the Irish for big plays?
Which special teams will make plays that alter momentum or field position?
During which quarter will most USC fans try to beat the traffic?
This contest does not have to be close, but strange things seem to happen to the Irish inside the Coliseum. Notre Dame will win if they play a clean game with no catastrophic mistakes, but that’s not as simple as it sounds in this venue. Still, there are too many distractions on the USC campus and in the locker room right now to expect the Trojans to produce the sixty minutes of quality football that it would take to stay with the Irish. Notre Dame is highly motivated and sharply focused right now on a much bigger prize. A few style points would be most welcome to close the regular season since the Irish will be idle during conference championship week.
NOTRE DAME 34 USC 20